I was sitting in my living room, writing one final pregame story for the crosstown rivalry game between UCLA and USC on Saturday night, when I saw the news on Twitter: The Choctaw High School volleyball team had won state.
At the time, I was doing what, at 24 years old, would have been my dream job. Twenty-four was the age I moved to California, seeking this exact opportunity: To cover Pac-12 college football. I even had the added bonus of doing it from home, next to my dog. This was what I left my beloved Navarre, a pinprick of a town in Northwest Florida, for.
Yet in my entire life, I have never wanted to be a high school sports reporter more than I did in that moment.
You miss those moments, those relationships you can only develop in reporting for high school teams. If you do your job right, you become quite close with most of the coaches and players you cover, especially in a small town like Navarre and Fort Walton Beach, home to the Choctaw Indians. There’s a massive difference between being a college reporter and a high school reporter, which can be boiled down to this: As a high school reporter, players, coaches and parents are so incredibly thankful for your work that there is an undeniable sense of meaning to everything you write. In the college and professional ranks, your work is expected, not cherished. It doesn’t make it any less meaningful, it’s just different, though you do miss the calls from parents asking for eight copies to save in the scrapbook and kids tweeting pictures of their names in the headline, or even the box score.
For a little less than two years, I lived in Navarre, though my heart was undoubtedly left with many teams on the Panhandle: Paxton basketball, Niceville and Raider football, Rocky Bayou everything.
Small towns are funny. You develop relationships with people, and somehow, every single one of those relationships impacts almost everything you do, even years down the road.
One summer day — always a slow time for high school writers — at the Northwest Florida Daily News, my editor and good friend, Seth Stringer, passed along a memo about the Emerald Coast Volleyball Club, some beach team that did something or other that was deemed important enough to fill a few empty summer pages. The details are not especially important.
I messaged the coach, Meaghan Allen, on Facebook, hopped in my Chevy Aveo, the worst car to ever grace this planet, and met her team at the beach for a story on the club. She told me about her club, I told her I had just started dabbling in volleyball, that I was kind of hooked, mostly because I was terrible. She told me I should meet her husband, Scott. He’s an excellent coach. He could probably show you a thing or two.
Indeed he did. I bugged the living hell out of Scott, and he was every bit the phenomenal coach, and even better human being, that everyone — everyone — made him to be. He helped teach me how to hit a cut shot, how to form a platform, to stop stop stop approaching early. In return, I wrote a few more stories than the ECVC, which was essentially an extension of Choctaw, probably deserved, but that’s how it goes sometimes: You write what you know, and I began to know that program very well.
I would practice on the beach with Scott in the mornings, and even some evenings. I even crashed a Choctaw indoor practice, and if you’d like to see one of the most flattering pictures of me, just ask Meaghan, who I don’t think will ever forget my impeccable passing form that day.
Reporters are not supposed to root for the teams they cover — the Maryland journalism school’s adopted slogan is literally no cheering in the press box — but I will not sit here and tell you that I did not root for Choctaw. I did not do so loudly. Nor in my stories. I was tantamount to one of those quiet parents in the corner, tensing up at tight moments, breathing sighs of relief when the Indians prevailed.
On Saturday night, they did.
I do not know all of their players, but I do know that Kassandra and Jessie Fairly are two of the finest all-around high school athletes I’ve met. I recall Lindsey Legg being one of those rare talents who is happy to do the dirty work that few notice.
And, of course, I remember the coaches, who I imagine will be friends for a very long time. Scott is still the first person I send video of my own volleyball matches to, and Meaghan still checks in to send me congratulations and good luck texts for whatever it is that I’m up to.
I’m thousands of miles away from Choctaw, though the good news is that I’m not in a press box.
There’s plenty of cheering allowed in here.